New showrunners talk TV: Catherine Reitman

The Workin' Moms creator on running her first writers' room and Starting Over.

Canadian TV has arguably never been more exciting. With long-running series like Orphan Black earning critical acclaim, and new series like Mary Kills People and Nirvanna the Band the Show garnering buzz and catching the eyes of international audiences, there’s a lot to celebrate. In a new series, Playback Daily is catching up with some of Canada’s next generation of showrunners and discussing everything from running a writers’ room to closing deals.

First up, Playback spoke with Catherine Reitman, the writer/director/producer and star of CBC’s Workin’ Moms. The series follows the struggles of four women and examines how they juggle their burgeoning identities as mothers. Executive produced by Reitman and her husband, Philip Sternberg, the series is produced through their shingle Wolf & Rabbit Entertainment, with the participation of the Canadian Media Fund. Additional writers on the series are Rebecca Kohler, Karen Moore and Ingrid Haas. The series is distributed internationally by Coldsprings Media and represented by Vanguarde Artist Management and CAA.

Why did you want to tell this story?

I had just had my first child three years ago. I returned to work too quickly, I felt postpartum depression set in. I started having all these dark fantasies that would make me laugh- things about a car hitting me and putting me in a hospital and once I was in the hospital it would become this resort fantasy.

The more I started feeling that way, my husband, said, “I think you’ve got to write about this. I think there’s something here. If you bring it up at Mommy and Me they [may] make fun of you, but if you’re able to write about it maybe there are other women out there who can identify with it.” That was the birth of the show’s concept.

We sold the show to the CBC last year, the day after I learned I was pregnant with my second son.

How did that deal with the CBC come about?

[Sternberg and I shoot] an average of two sizzles a year and Workin’ Moms was one we’d been working on for a long time, just because it had so much more meaning to both of us., so we shot an eight-minute sizzle.

I’m repped at CAA in Los Angeles and [while I was in Toronto for TIFF] they said, “There’s a great agent Tina Horowitz at Vanguarde [Artists Management]. She’ll watch the tapes, see if there’s anything to them and take it from there.” So  Horowitz took a look, she fell in love with two of our sizzles, Starting Over and Workin’ Moms [and sent them to CBC]. We’re fortunate that Sally Catto [general manager, programming] at the CBC watched both and Workin’ Moms got greenlit for 13 episodes and Starting Over is in development there.

How long did it take to write the pilot? 

I had been sitting on this idea for three years. I had a three year-old at that time and now a pregnant belly. I knew I wanted to make [the show] about four women [that are] very different from each other. But of course they’re all based on extensions of myself: my vanity, my anger, my naivete, my childlike innocence. So [I] fleshed out each of those qualities and made [them] their own three-dimensional women, and then [developed] their set-up. That was all crafted before we’d even shot the sizzle.

The pilot took no time and then I wrote three more episodes before the writers’ room began.

How did you assemble your writing team?

I think I read 70 samples and went to meet my favourite of the lot at Vanguarde. I’m an improviser. There’s nothing wrong with introverted writers, but if there’s a writer who can’t play and joke with me then they’re probably not meant for my room.

This was your first time running a writers’ room. What was your approach?

The majority of [the writers] had all been in several rooms before me on institution, big-budget studio shows. I was intimidated going in, but I know the world of my show. I know what it is to be a working mother.

I set the laws of the land: we’re not making any fear-based decisions, we’re not writing from a place where we’re scared of what the network will say, let’s write the most extraordinary show that we would want to watch.

I write very quickly because I’m not a studied, diligent person.  I expected my writers to operate on a pretty fast turnaround as well, but we set them up for success. [In the writers room, we set] what each scene looks like, what happens with the character going into it, where the character is when we’re entering in the scene and what changes in them when they’re exiting the scene, with a couple of jokes that we improvise in the room. From there [individual writers take] it away for a week, two weeks, send me the script, I give them notes, and I [do] a pass.

Tell us about Starting Over.

[The CBC has] ordered a couple of episodes in development. They haven’t greenlit the series. It’s a concept about a married woman having to start over after discovering her husband’s been having an affair with a multitude of her girlfriends as well as her boss. It’s based on something that happened to me in college. It forced me to move home and really start over, but I was 19, who gives a shit if a 19 year-old has to start over? But if you’re a married woman and it’s later in your life, it means a lot more. It’s a much darker comedy. It’s about a woman figuring out who she is and what she wants to do with the rest of her life. She gets under the helm of a really controversial life coach, who we’re hoping to get a Canadian name for. Every episode she’s going to take on some really nontraditional life advice. 

Photo credit Matt Barnes